Under normal circumstances when I see a film coming from Walden Media that has been endorsed by hard-right televangelist Dr. D. James Kennedy, my natural response would be to flee to safer environs. However, the presence of Michael Apted as director and a mind-blowing cast of Brit thespians—Ioan Gruffud, Michael Gambon, Toby Jones, Rufus Sewell, Ciaran Hinds and Albert Finney—made me curious to say the least. I am glad of that, because Amazing Grace may not be quite amazing, but it’s one of the nobler “based on true events” efforts I’ve seen in some time, one of the most entertaining and a fine example of the work of a master-craftsman filmmaker.
I say the film is not amazing, but I want to note that there are moments in it that are. There are scenes of startling power—as when Lord Charles Fox (Gambon) affixes his signature to a petition for Parliament to abolish slavery. Did it happen this way? I have no idea, but the scene expresses the essence of the moment, the enormity of the idea of a government actually listening to the people and becoming part of that voice.
In essence, Amazing Grace is a fairly straightforward and necessarily simplified biopic on William Wilberforce (Gruffud), who spent a great deal of his life trying to get slavery abolished—among other things that the film barely touches on. The film chooses—wisely—to concentrate on this one issue so that it keeps focus and makes Wilberforce’s story work within the confines of 111 minutes of screen time. The screenplay by Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things) is divided into two central sections: There’s a framing story in which Wilberforce, ill and tired of being defeated in his efforts by Parliament, meets the woman who will become his wife, Barbara (Romola Garai, Scoop), and tells her of his struggles; the flashbacks of the struggles make up the bulk of the rest of the film, until the point that Wilberforce brings Barbara up to date.
It’s a clever script that’s smart enough to afford moments of genuine amusement (usually given over to Michael Gambon and Rufus Sewell) along with the more sober material. If it errs at all, the fault lies in a slight tendency to make Wilberforce perhaps a little too good, though the film adds a little tempering to this by depicting his self-absorption in the matters at hand as something that makes him somewhat thoughtless to those in his immediate sphere.
The overall approach to the material is very interesting. Wilberforce’s Christianity is addressed, but never unduly stressed. (Indeed, Wilberforce refers only to “God” and never calls himself a Christian.) We have his spiritual awakening (presented in strangely pantheistic terms, which wouldn’t have been uncommon in his day), his flirtation with taking up a religious life, and his decision—aided by his friends, including repentant former slave trader John Newton (Albert Finney) who wrote “Amazing Grace”—to stay in politics in order to use his convictions where they might do the most good. After this, the film is blessedly unpreachy.
Equally interesting—and gratifying—is the strong undercurrent of modern allegory to the story. Wilberforce is fighting his battle against the powers that be—against persons whose own financial best interests rely on keeping the slave trade alive. In other words, the man is taking on the 18th-century equivalent of big business. For that matter, what’s the distance between Wilberforce being warned that in time of war his dissenting remarks could easily be construed as sedition and the “you’re either for us, or against us” mindset of the present day? (One wonders exactly how much of Amazing Grace Dr. Kennedy actually grasped.)
Holding the film together is the steady direction of Michael Apted. He mayn’t be a great artist, but he’s undeniably a great craftsman, who can deliver a solid movie with a beautifully studied (but never slow) pace. That’s exactly what he does here. Rated PG for thematic material involving slavery, and some mild language.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke